Archive for November, 2009

Referring to Parents

November 24, 2009

One of the things that all writers struggle with is figuring out exactly what to call the main character’s parents.  I usually go with Mom and Dad unless I’m writing a fantasy and then I go with the local equivalent.  But I recently ran across a great explanation on Orson Scott Card’s website on exactly why this is a good choice.  It has to do with maintaining a tight third person point of view, but I encourage any writer  who has struggled with this to check out this award-winning author’s website.


Prospecting for Gold Nuggets

November 19, 2009

My article Prospecting for Gold Nuggets is now up on the Institute for Children’s Literature’s website.  It discusses how important it is to come up with a strong premise for your writing projects.

YA Mystery: Chapter 1 Revision is Done!

November 18, 2009

First chapters and last chapters are often among the hardest ones for any novelist.  You have to first pull the reader smoothly into your world with the first and ease them out in a satisfying way in the last.  It’s necessary to put in just enough information so that the readers know exactly what’s going on, but not so much that it weighs down the story.  Plus readers have a well-tuned sensor for when the author is providing important information for their benefit rather than following the flow of the story.   That’s why I do my best to make explanations seem like the very thoughts of my main character.   Did I achieve this in my revision to Chapter 1 of my YA mystery.  Well, maybe not all of it.  But that’s what critique groups are for.  They let me know what’s really on page.

Four dimensional characters

November 15, 2009

Every writer learns that it’s important to create three-dimensional characters. The people who come to life in books must occupy fictional space in unique and interesting ways. But because most stories are about a protagonist’s personal journey–even if that person never leaves the backyard–characters should truly be four-dimensional.  The character at the end of the novel, short story or picture book ought to be different from the one readers met at the very beginning as circumstances have their effect.

Naturally, there are exceptions to this. The two boys in  the CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS books didn’t change one bit in the first six books. And I still don’t know who is who unless I check the opening page and see that “George is the kid on the left with the tie and the flat-top. Harold is the one on the right with the T-shirt and the bad haircut.”

Inserting Characters

November 10, 2009

A few years ago I was on a walk with my son when he was in seventh or eight grade.  He’d just finished reading a first draft of one of my manuscripts. “I really liked Sophia,” he said. “But you’re really going to have to introduce her earlier.”

I laughed because he was exactly right. My main character and I both met Sofia unexpectedly at the very same second while my MC was in the middle of his “darkest moment.” (That comes near the end of the second act in a plotting plan known as the step outline.)   If I’d let her, Sofia would have stuck to Thom like a burr and really gotten in the way of the story. Fortunately, her parents and I managed to stop her, but it wasn’t easy.  I liked her, too, but I wasn’t sure that I should keep her.  The talk with my son and feedback from my critique partners convinced me that I should weave her in fully instead of plucking her out.  I found a good place to introduce her and found a way for her to be a “mirror character” in the plot.  Her interactions with Thom would reflect back on the main plot and theme. This project hasn’t been acquired by an editor, but it was one of the projects that helped the woman who is now my agent decide to offer representation. 

Since then, I’ve inserted other characters into other projects.  In fact, I’ve been doing just that for most of the summer and early fall with the new fifty pages to a fantasy.  But now I’m doing it with STAND-IN FOR MURDER (working title), which could be coming out in Fall, 2010.  My editor felt that I needed at least one more teenage character.  She can’t be plopped in like Sofia was in that first draft.   Instead, the reader has to feel like she’s been there all along.  As far as my editor was concerned, the earlier I introduced her the better.  After ruminating on their past for awhile, I decided that at least a reference to this new character would actually work very well on the second page.  It would make sense, given what Id recently discovered about what had happened between the two characters.  As I said in an earlier post, this kind of revision really does feel like I’m working in one of those STAR TREK alternate time lines.  Maybe it’s the one where Mr. Spock has a beard…

The Writers’ Revision Retreat

November 9, 2009

There is no great writing, only great rewriting.

                                 – Justice Brandeis

That quote sums up the importance of revision rather nicely.  It will be one of the themes for the 2010 SCBWI Missouri retreat on revision, which will be held April 23-25 at the Trout Lodge YMCA.  I’ll be one of the presenters.  Here’s an excerpt from the brochure: 

Authors love to write.  We all adore the excitement of a new idea and the thrill of exploring a new character. It’s the agony of editing that we hate.

 With the help of editor, Randi Rivers and novelist, Kristin Nitz, you will learn how to face that monster called revision.

You will spend a full weekend analyzing and revising your toughest project. Charlesbridge Editor Randi Rivers will meet one-on-one with you to suggest revisions that will make your manuscript stronger.  Both Kristin and Randi will give workshops on how to improve your writing.  You will also have time to make changes and meet with Randi a second time to go over your revisions.

Novelist Kristin Nitz will work with you to draft a query letter to an editor and help answer your marketing questions.  It will be a weekend full of writing, rewriting, and encouragement.

Chapter 5: Done! At Least for Now.

November 6, 2009

I finished up the conversations in Chapter 5 and linked them together loosely in a rougher than usual draft.  I know that I’m going to have to go back and add in more specific detail, but I’ve done a lot of meditating on the changes that I’ll need to be doing on my YA mystery, and I’m finally ready to dive in on that.

Climbing Stairs

November 3, 2009

Katrin, my current main character, needed to race up to the fourth floor.  I’ve run up flights of stairs any number of times, including the time that my daughter and I went on what we called the Chicago diet.  (Climb up and down the 2o flights of stairs to our hotel room and eat absolutely anything that we wanted.)  But I thought it would be helpful to know exactly what Katrin was feeling as she climbed the stairs.  I decided that I’d better climb six flights of stairs because Katrin lived in a building with high ceilings. 

I took the stairs two at a time for the first four flights, but then had to switch over to one had a time for the fifth and sixth flight. Because we only have one flight of stairs in our house, I did have to run down the stairs, too.  So I ran down the stairs and flung open the door to my study.  It rattled in satisfying way.  Then I spoke Katrin’s lines.

“This is–this is Dom Leandro,” I found myself gasping out.  In my rough draft, there was only one “This is” but it feels right to add in that breathless second line. 

I know that I’m not the only writer who does silly things like this in order to get a scene right.  In fact, I was lucky enough to go on a writers’ retreat with Kathleen Duey  as the writer-in-residence.  The stories about what she used to do to get a story right assured me that I wasn’t crazy to be doing things like climbing stairs or falling down in order to get a story right.  In fact, my son was an incredibly good sport last year when he let me tackle him about twenty times for my project set in Egypt. 

I discuss these techniques and other ones I’ve used in one of my school presentations: Action! Put Your Character into Motion.

First Chapters: A Contract with the Reader

November 1, 2009

As a writer, I’ve long been aware of the importance of the first page and chapter of a book.  In fact, I discussed the approach one editor takes to first pages  in the entry called Chapter One: More or Less Done.  But I think that it’s only been the last few years that I’ve though of the first chapter as a contract with the reader with respect to tone, style and content. 

I ran across the idea for the first time in a book on writing by Richard Peck, but I’m sure that it’s been around for a very long time.  Orson Scott Card has an entire section on this in his book, CHARACTERS AND VIEWPOINT.   In a recent talk at an SCBWI retreat Harold Underdown talked about what a first page needed.  Here is something that’s fairly close to a quote: “What does a first page need? The author makes a promise to the reader.  There are many kinds of promises and many ways to make these promises.”As I get to work on revising my YA mystery, I’ll be reviewing the promises that I made in the first chapter. 

So far I’d like to think that I’ve promised the reader a YA mystery with a touch of humor and romance.